NFL MVP Race, Week 15: Ryan Tannehill makes late charge as Lamar Jackson's lead over Russell Wilson widens

When the Titans acquired Ryan Tannehill from the Dolphins for the modest price of what was essentially a fourth-round pick, they thought they were getting a decent insurance policy in the event starting quarterback Marcus Mariota went down with yet another injury. They didn't think they were trading for a fringe MVP candidate who would revive their playoff chances mid-season by emerging as a top-five quarterback, but it turns out, that's what they actually got. It's been 15 weeks and Ryan Tannehill is in the MVP conversation in the year 2019. 

Welcome to our Week 15 MVP check-in where five NFL writers here at CBS Sports -- Will Brinson, John Breech, Jared Dubin, Ryan Wilson, and Sean Wagner-McGough (hi, that's me) -- all ranked their top-five MVP candidates to this point in the season. For the first time all year, Tannehill made an appearance. Four of our five voters included him on their ballots.

The acclaim is well deserved. When Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7, the Titans were 2-4. With Tannehill under center, the Titans have gone 6-1. At 8-5, they're very much alive in both the AFC South (with two matchups with the Texans still looming) and the AFC wild-card race

As Warren Sharp pointed out, the Titans' offense is averaging one point per minute of possession since Tannehill replaced Mariota. That leads the league. For the sake of comparison, consider the Ravens are averaging 0.73 points per minute of possession with MVP frontrunner Lamar Jackson. With Tannehill, the Titans have a more efficient scoring offense than the Ravens.

And that makes sense because statistically, Tannehill is playing like a top-five quarterback. He ranks second in completion percentage (73.4), second in touchdown percentage (7.4), first in yards per attempt (9.8), first in passer rating (118.5), and sixth in DVOA (which measures value per play). He's done all of that even though the Titans' offensive line ranks dead last in pass protection, per Football Outsiders' metrics.

The manner in which he's done all of this is impressive too. Tannehill is bombing the ball downfield. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he's averaging 9.2 air yards per pass attempt, which ranks fifth. The degree of difficulty has also been high. He's not just throwing to wide-open receivers downfield. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 20.2 percent of his passes have been thrown into tight windows -- only six quarterbacks have thrown into tight windows at a higher clip. Despite the fact that he's throwing downfield into tight windows frequently, he's been remarkably accurate. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he leads the league in completion percentage above expectation.

A few moments from the Titans' win over the Raiders on Sunday stick out as examples of what Tannehill has been doing so well since he was handed the reins. First, there was his touch pass deep down the sideline to Khari Blasingame with a defender trailing in coverage.

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NFL Game Pass

There was his touchdown bomb to A.J. Brown that was perfectly placed 50 yards downfield despite Tannehill getting crunched in his own end zone as he released the ball. 

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NFL Game Pass

There was his 39-yard dart up the seam in between two defenders.

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NFL Game Pass

But my favorite play was his final touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, because it was the ultimate heat check. Off play-action and moving to his right, Tannehill spotted Smith leaking out to the left. Without even bothering to set his feet, he threw up a touch pass that Smith was able to corral for a put-away score. It's my favorite play because it highlights everything that's going right for the Titans on offense right now: play-action, a confident throw downfield by Tannehill, and a pass-catcher going up and making a play on the ball -- his receivers deserve credit for continually coming down with his downfield throws.

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NFL Game Pass

Tannehill was so good on Sunday that he managed to turn a bad play (an interception) into a career highlight (a hit-stick tackle out of nowhere).

There's plenty of data to suggest that regression is probably coming, as For The Win's Steven Ruiz examined earlier this week. Tannehill probably won't play at a top-five level for the remainder of his career. But that's OK. He's more than good enough to start for a team -- probably the Titans -- next year. More importantly, he's good enough to push the Titans into the postseason this year.

At 8-5, the Titans are tied with the Texans atop the AFC South. How their two remaining matchups with Houston unfold will determine the outcome of the division. The Titans are also in play for a wild-card spot, trailing the fifth-seeded Bills by one game (plus the head-to-head tiebreaker) and the sixth-seeded Steelers by a tiebreaker. According to simulations conducted by SportsLine's Stephen Oh, the Titans have a 53.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. The playoffs are realistically within reach.

But ... Tannehill does not have a realistic shot of unseating Jackson, who remains very much the frontrunner for MVP. At this point, Russell Wilson appears to be the only candidate with a slim chance of usurping Jackson in the final three weeks of the season, but even still, that appears to be unlikely. Jackson's lead over Wilson continues to widen after the Ravens defeated the Bills behind Jackson's three touchdown passes and the Seahawks failed to score an offensive touchdown in a primetime loss to the Rams

Total Yards

Total TDs

INTs + Fumbles

QBR

Record

Wilson

3,734

29

12

70.8 (4th)

10-3

Jackson

3,694

35

12

79.8 (1st)

11-2

Below, you'll find our collective MVP ballot that was pieced together by adding up all five of our individual ballots. A first-place vote was worth five points, a second-place vote was worth four points, and so on. Further down below, you'll find all five of our individual ballots, including brief explainers so you know why we voted the way we did -- and also so you know who to yell at.

MVP leaderboard after Week 14

1. Lamar Jackson -- 25 points
2. Russell Wilson -- 17 points
3. Ryan Tannehill -- 11 points
4. Patrick Mahomes -- 10 points
5. Deshaun Watson -- 5.5 points
T-6. Kirk Cousins -- 3 points
T-6. Michael Thomas -- 3 points
8. Dalvin Cook -- 0.5 points 

So much for Watson's surge. Last week, he moved all the way up to third place with 16 points. This week, he falls to fifth place, losing 10.5 points along the way. It's also worth noting that Dak Prescott has fallen off the list entirely after he picked up four points last week. Finally, Jackson's lead has grown from five to six to eight points over the past three weeks.

Onto the individual ballots.

Will Brinson's ballot

  1. Lamar Jackson
  2. Ryan Tannehill
  3. Kirk Cousins
  4. Russell Wilson
  5. Deshaun Watson

This award is OVER. Throw in the damn towel already. Lamar Jackson is your 2019 NFL MVP -- there's no way anyone is catching him at this point, not even with three weeks left in the season. The second most valuable player in my mind right now is Tannehill, who has played his tail off for the Titans and has them surging towards a playoff berth. Sorry, but Russell Wilson hasn't been that great over the last four weeks. I do expect a huge bounceback against the Cardinals though. Cousins has his team surging towards a division title matchup against the Packers. Deshaun is probably here by default, but he's had a great season that shouldn't be diminished by one or two games. 

Jared Dubin's ballot

  1. Lamar Jackson
  2. Russell Wilson
  3. Patrick Mahomes
  4. Deshaun Watson
  5. Michael Thomas

Jackson just keeps rolling, throwing for three touchdowns against one of the NFL's best defenses. Wilson is not playing particularly well over the past few weeks and that has allowed Jackson to widen his lead in this race. It's going to take a lot to take this award away from him at this point. Mahomes was good but not great against the Patriots, but the egg Watson laid against the Broncos led me to flip-flop them in my rankings. And Michael Thomas' team lost, but it's pretty clear at this point that he is one of the small handful of best players in the NFL.

John Breech's ballot 

  1. Lamar Jackson
  2. Russell Wilson
  3. Ryan Tannehill
  4. Michael Thomas
  5. Deshaun Watson/Dalvin Cook 

With three weeks left to play, I don't want to say that Lamar Jackson has the award wrapped up, but it feels kind of like he has the award wrapped up. In Week 14, Jackson threw for three touchdowns against a Bills defense that was only surrendering an average of 0.75 touchdown passes per game this season. Not only does Jackson now lead the NFL in touchdown passes, but he also became just the second quarterback in NFL history hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark. 

As for the rest of this list, Russell Wilson is the only one who even remotely has a hope of catching Jackson. With the Seahawks playing the 49ers in Week 17, Wilson will get a chance to leave a lasting impression on voters. In my third spot, I added Tannehill, because he's arguably been the top quarterback in the NFL since Week 7. In seven starts this season, not only has Tannehill gone 6-1, but he's put together a QB rating of 118.5, which leads the entire NFL. On Thomas' end, he's still on pace to set the NFL single-season record for most catches in a season after a huge game against the 49ers (11 catches, 134 yards, 1 TD). In my final spot, I'm splitting my vote, because I was told not to split my vote, and I don't like following rules.

Ryan Wilson's ballot

  1. Lamar Jackson
  2. Patrick Mahomes
  3. Russell Wilson
  4. Ryan Tannehill
  5. Deshaun Watson

Jackson wasn't great against the Bills but he was plenty good enough to maintain his sizable lead on our MVP ballot. Mahomes' gutsy effort against the Patriots moves him up our list. Meanwhile, Wilson hasn't been nearly as dominant in recent weeks, though you could argue he's the primary reason the Seahawks are still a playoff team. Tannehill makes his first appearance on this list and there may not be a more deserving player; he's 6-1 as the Titans starter and in that time he's thrown 15 TDs, 4 INTs, completed 73.4 percent of his throws, has a passer rating of 118.5 and rushed for three more scores. Finally, Watson and the Texans were embarrassed at home by the Broncos but he still accounted for three Houston touchdowns.

Sean Wagner-McGough's ballot

  1. Lamar Jackson
  2. Russell Wilson
  3. Patrick Mahomes
  4. Ryan Tannehill
  5. Deshaun Watson 

No change at the top of my ballot. Jackson did enough against the Bills to retain his lead over Wilson after the Seahawks failed to score an offensive touchdown. It wasn't necessarily Wilson's fault, but a performance like that makes it impossible for him to jump over Jackson. I was tempted to move Mahomes up to No. 2 after he helped the Chiefs beat the Patriots in Foxborough, but his injury absence early this season makes it difficult to do so. Wilson has been more valuable than Mahomes over the course of the entire season. Tannehill doesn't deserve a chance to actually win the award, but he does deserve some love after he transformed the Titans' season. Finally, Watson falls after an inept performance against the Broncos -- most of his stats were accumulated with the game already out of reach.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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